Getting set up for the night before the sun sets, including anchoring and putting up canvas, is much easier than doing it after dark. (Photos courtesy Cobalt Boats)

Getting set up for the night before the sun sets, including anchoring and putting up canvas, is much easier than doing it after dark. (Photos courtesy Cobalt Boats)

When things are going well, nothing beats overnighting on your boat. Overnighting creates instant adventure; it feels like an exotic getaway, even if you're just a few miles from home.

But when things aren't going so well, when you don't have what you need — or you have too much of what you don't need — overnighting can be a nightmare. And once you've lived through one overnighting disaster, you probably won't be willing to give it another try.

The good news is, outside of nasty weather, the overnight experience is within your control. Here are 10 solid tips from people who overnight as often as possible. These suggestions don't guarantee overnighting success, but they'll help you get there.

1. Make a List

Make a list of all of the things you think you'll need for an overnight trip on the boat, and use it as a checklist both before and after your trip. In making this list, you'll prioritize. You may even discover redundancy, and that will help you streamline — always a good idea — what your bring.
Use this list before you leave the dock to check off the supplies you need to pack. Then use it afterward to keep track of the supplies you have left over as well as those you used up.

Carol Barrieault of Woodlyn, Pa., spends most weekends on a 31-foot Jersey named "The Cajun." She remembers buying crackers for every overnighter she took a few years back. "At the end of the season, when I was cleaning out the boat, I found 15 boxes of crackers."

2. Pack Smart

Most people tend to over-pack clothing for overnight boat jaunts. (Chances are, you can leave the cashmere sweater at home for the weekend in the Florida Keys.) But no matter what time of year it is or what type of climate you are cruising in, always have a windbreaker or rain gear on board. You never know when a cold front or a rainstorm will blow through.

Rick Fulmer, vice president of marketing and customer service for Four Winns in Cadillac, Mich., and a guy with experience sleeping on boats, says, "Always think through the weekend. Pack lightly and make everything easy to reach. Organization is the key."

Hot tip: Even though they take up a bit of extra space, a couple of pillows from home are worth bringing. When it comes time to sleep, they'll provide much-appreciated added comfort.

3. Prepare Food

You basically have two options for onboard dining: You can bring food that doesn't require cooking or heating, or you can cook on your boat. Cooking complete meals at home that can be packaged and frozen and then defrosted and reheated on your boat can make your life a lot easier.

"The key to eating well on a small boat is to do ahead whatever you possibly can," says Barrieault.

Your cold-food options are unlimited; however, some items are better than others. Single-serving yogurt containers and hard-boiled eggs are great examples of "compact" (consider space for everything you take on board when overnighting) and nutritional.

Here are several more hot tips for cold foods:

  • Pack lunch meats and cheeses separate from bread to keep sandwiches fresh.

  • Use hard rolls or bagels instead of bread (they stay fresher longer).

  • Store salads in plastic bags for easy storage and easy eating.

  • Freeze juice boxes to serve as drinks and "ice blocks" that keep coolers cold.

  • Pack hard fruits that don't easily bruise, such as oranges, apples and cantaloupes.

  • Freeze pasta sauce (marinara, pesto, etc.) in sealable plastic bags and lay them flat in a cooler.

4. Use Two Coolers

Barrieault recommends using two ice chests on board: one for storing foods that need to stay cold or frozen, and the other for sodas, fruit and snacks. By using the two-cooler method, one cooler can be opened on a regular basis while the other will stay closed, and colder, for longer periods of time, preserving the foods inside.

Most supermarkets and marina markets sell ice both in large blocks and smaller cubes. For storing perishables (dairy products, meats and meals that need to stay frozen) in a cooler, blocks are better than cubes because they last longer.

Hot tip: Wash out empty gallon milk jugs, fill them with fresh water and then freeze them. Not only do they serve as frozen blocks of ice, but they are also drinkable once melted.

5. Cook Safely

Fred and Kathy Laish of Levittown, Pa., own a Bayliner Ciera 2755 named "Kathy L." The boat has a cuddy cabin with a head, berth and small galley. In the summer, they overnight on the boat almost every weekend. They frequently cook on board with an alcohol stove.

While they cook belowdecks, they always refill it in a well-ventilated area and never refill it when the stove is still hot.

Portable charcoal and gas grills present another popular cooking alternative. However, grilling on board should be approached cautiously. In fact, unless a grill is designed to be used on board a boat — specific provisions (rail attachment, for example) have been made by the manufacturer — you should avoid it. Take the grill to the beach, if possible and allowed, and cook there.

6. Outfit Your Galley

Barrieault also has used an alcohol stove for onboard cooking. In addition to basic galley utensils such as a spatula and at least one all-purpose knife, she suggest keeping three pans on board. "You need a frying pan, a small saucepan and an 8-quart pot for things like spaghetti," she says.

Obviously, you can't bring your entire spice rack with you on board, but that doesn't mean you'll be relegated to eating bland food. A few versatile spices, such as Italian seasoning, garlic powder, salt and pepper are worth bringing on board. They don't take up much space, and you'll be glad you have them.

7. Save Power

If you have a refrigerator on board, turn up the temperature so it doesn't use as much energy. Only open it when necessary, and know in advance what you will be taking out.

Consider using a two-battery system. Use one battery just for starting the engine, and use a second battery to run the other systems, such as appliances. Unfortunately, little things like having your stern light on all night or even playing the stereo can substantially drain your battery, running the voltage down below starting capacity. Using two batteries will ensure that you always have the power to start up the engine and head for home.

8. Add Power

Some folks opt for a small portable generator on board to run those luxury items they can't seem to leave on shore. A small generator is lightweight and can be used to run a variety of appliances.
Before you buy a portable generator, consider how much valuable space it will need and whether or not you are willing to sacrifice that space for convenience. If it looks as though it will take up too much space, it probably will.

9. Tow an Inflatable

Under the right conditions, you might consider towing an inflatable behind your boat. You can use it for stowage space, which will give you more space in your boat, as well as a shore tender. Before sunset, you'll want to tie your dinghy tightly to your stern so boats passing in the night don't accidentally plow over your line.

"Towing an inflatable behind may look funny, but it makes you feel like you are living on a large yacht instead of a small boat," says Barrieault.

Hot tip: Get settled for the night before it gets dark. Chores such as anchoring, putting up canvas and retrieving items from your towed inflatable are a lot more difficult in the dark.

10. Budget Wisely

Some of these tips you can implement right away, and some require further financial investment. If you are on a tight boating budget, make a list and buy only the most important items first.

For example, your two-cooler system is likely more essential — and certainly less expensive — than a portable generator to power gadgets. As with every aspect of overnighting, working within a budget requires a little planning. But don't be discouraged if you can't outfit yourself with everything you want immediately.

"If you really love boating, all of this planning is not a chore. You can't buy everything at once," said Barrieault. "Pick out the most important purchase first, and then buy another piece of equipment every year, especially if you are just starting out."